Connected East Africa: Kenya leads, the region follows

Earlier this month, the great and the good of the Nairobi ICT sector made their annual pilgrimage to the Kenyan coast to discuss the events of the last year and put in place plans for the next.

However, this year’s edition of Connected Kenya – organised by the country’s ICT Authority – was different. It had become Connected East Africa, for the first time expanded to include the rest of the region, with South Sudan particularly well represented.

The East African states already do work together on a variety of projects. Just last month, presidents Museveni of Uganda, Kagame of Rwanda, and Nkurunziza of Burundi got together in Tanzania to launch the construction of the Central Corridor railway line, which upon completion will link landlocked countries of the region to Dar es Salaam.

Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete’s recently delivered State of the East African Community (EAC) Address drew attention to the community’s efforts to remove non-tariff trade barriers and spur integration, as well as the progress on linking member nations through transportation.

Yet in terms of ICT, integration has taken its time to catch on. As recently as late-2013, leading Kenyan mobile operator Safaricom was blasting taxes imposed on calls from Kenya by EAC member states, which meant it had to increase its roaming charges. The company called the levies a “trade barrier”.

Fast forward to July last year, and integration is very much on the agenda. A Nairobi meeting saw Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan agree to adopt a regional telecommunications framework by the end of the year. That framework is now in place – the “One-Network-Area”. Essentially what the framework allows for is the exemption of regional calls from roaming charges applied by member states on international incoming calls and text messages. The policy was adopted at around the same time as a similar one in the European Union (EU), but East Africa now plans to go one better.

The biggest story of the conference was that the One-Network-Area concept will be expanded within the next year to data and mobile money. Kenyan Ministry of ICT cabinet secretary Fred Matiangi said he and his colleagues from other EAC countries were putting together a proposal for central banks and national treasuries.

“The future is in the networks. It is all about interacting and bringing down boundaries and making East Africa an interconnected region,” Matiangi explained

The benefits for regional business of a framework where a Rwandan can visit Tanzania and pay no extra for making calls, sending SMSs, browsing the internet or making mobile money transactions are clear, as are those of the push to make mobile money truly interoperable in the region. But what is also clear is that this East African integration is being largely led by Kenya, a country that has managed to set an example to its neighbours in terms of ICT use. It also recently signed an MoU with South Sudan to link the two countries via fibre optic cable.

Bitange Ndemo, former permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of ICT, may also have used his platform at the event to decry the corruption in procurement that’s holding back the sector’s development, but he was clear on the steps forward taken by Kenya in the last few years. They are steps that, as Ndemo noted, are envied by Kenya’s neighbours. And the signs from the event are we can expect to see them replicated in the likes of Uganda and South Sudan in coming years.

The establishment of Huduma centres, which put government services all in one place and removed the need for a number of separate trips to queue-heavy public offices, were applauded by delegates. Once completed, Konza Techno City, a new technology hub 60km southeast of Nairobi, will be the biggest ICT business park in the region. South Sudan’s healthy attendance of ministers and civil servants could be seen taking eager notes. In the areas of student loans and procurement, Kenya is also leading the way with digitisation and automation, and it is a lead the rest of East Africa looks likely to follow.

The same can be said of Kenya’s growth in the start-up space, where it has been the recipient of much of the publicity and money pumped into the sector. Microsoft Kenya country manager Kunle Awisoka said small businesses had become one of the region’s greatest assets. This is perhaps a view shared by the Kenyan government, which has launched Enterprise Kenya, a project aimed at supporting the country’s technology entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Issues remain. The much touted Konza Techno City is still years off completion. Ndemo is concerned about corruption. Regulation has not yet caught up with development. And legal wrangles over issues such as laptops for schools and digital migration have caused controversy. But the positive outcome of the inaugural Connected East Africa is that the region is working together to boost ICT and use technology to ease integration and trade between countries. And Kenya is taking the lead.